The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

We Can Control Our Southern Border. So Why Don’t We?

A Customs and Border Protection vehicle patrols along a new section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in El Paso, Texas, August 27, 2020. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuter)
It’s not a matter of resources. It’s a matter of will.

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Patrol the Border

Why is it we do not control our southern border?

Some people say it is the lack of a wall. There are places along our border where barriers are appropriate and useful and places where they aren’t. But we could put up a wall of a different kind — the human kind — tomorrow. The federal government employees 20,000 Border Patrol agents, and our border with Mexico is less than 2,000 miles. That means that we could station a Border Patrol agent every 500 feet or so on the border, or every 1,500 feet if we split them into three eight-hour shifts for 24-hour surveillance. And 1,500 feet is not very far: They could see each other. There are people who can run that far in less than a minute.

Yes, I know we have other borders.

Since we need some of those agents to do other things, we could pretty easily supplement them with volunteers. Harris County (that’s Houston), Texas, and Los Angeles County both have very large volunteer auxiliaries for their sheriffs’ departments (L.A. County has more volunteer sheriff’s reserves than Salt Lake City has police officers), and one gets the distinct feeling that volunteer border watchers would not be hard to come by. Give them radios. They don’t have to intercept anybody — they just have to call it in.

We do not use our resources effectively because there is no incentive to do so. Patrolling the border — actually doing the job — would be hard and tedious work, and thankless for the most part. You see the same pattern across U.S. law enforcement: We do squat to run down straw-buyers and low-level firearms offenders, but we have a gigantic, expensive bureaucratic apparatus to police the trade in firearms at federally licensed retailers, where the owners and the customers are, pretty much by definition, law-abiding people. You probably think the Border Patrol is a law-enforcement agency, but a lot of people think of it as a jobs program, the same way they think of the schools and prisons (which increasingly resemble one another in their architecture and management). I have heard the same story from any number of embittered young police officers: They thought they were signing up to be protectors and guardians, and then found out two years in that they were mostly tax collectors. But they stay in the job.

Getting control of the southern border is not the same thing as getting control over illegal immigration. Many of our illegal immigrants (in some years, the majority of them) do not come into the country by walking over the border illegally. They come legally by land, air, and sea, and then they don’t leave when they are supposed to. Those illegal immigrants, like the ones who cross the border on foot, come and stay for different reasons: many of them, but by no means all, for work; others to be reunited with family living here; others because of the simple raw desperation of living in one of the unhappier corners of this world, where there is no hope of improvement. People respond to incentives.

That we should be sympathetic to their situation and that we should enforce our laws are not mutually exclusive propositions. It is certainly the case that our lax attitude toward illegal immigration makes their lives worse in some ways — it is an attractive nuisance that leaves them in thrall to human traffickers, organized-crime bosses on both sides of the border, unscrupulous employers, etc. For them to be in the United States is a near-guarantee of poverty and puts them at very high risk for various awful kinds of exploitation. The Biden administration is not doing anybody any favors by signaling its intention to loosen up Trump-era practices. People — I repeat — respond to incentives.

Illegal immigrants who come to the United States for work should be the easiest ones to police — but we don’t do it. A mandatory system for verifying employment eligibility (E-Verify or similar) would get most of that job done. Frog-march a few meatpacking executives off to the pokey for a few years and start enforcing the law and word will get out. All the complaints that this or that business cannot make it without illegal-immigrant labor are poppycock: We are still going to have farms, hotels, and drywall, even if we start enforcing our immigration laws. If your business cannot make it without violating federal law and holding your workers in semi-serfdom, then your business doesn’t make it. I get the feeling somebody is still going to figure out a way to make a dime selling me an avocado.

Should the United States have a tighter or looser immigration policy? Yes.

We should make it as easy as possible for highly skilled, highly educated, high-income people to come here. They will do highly productive work and start businesses. Immigrants like Elon Musk don’t come here to take Americans’ jobs — they create new ones. But we should also get control of illegal immigration and be forthright about creating a legal-immigration system that is oriented toward the interests of American citizens, just as we would ordinarily expect any other policy to be.

If it were only a matter of labor economics, then I’d be happy to let the markets decide. But people aren’t just units of labor. And though it may not always be as obvious as those disquieting photos of children locked up in detention facilities, our decision — and it is a national political decision — to tacitly encourage illegal immigration is much more profoundly inhumane than it would be to enforce our laws and reform our system along intelligent and decent lines.

We could do that, if we wanted to. But we don’t want to.

In Other News . . .

One of the most entertaining things in observing American politics is watching progressives keep discovering and rediscovering that the Catholic Church believes in its own teachings.

In Other Other News . . .

There is at the moment a very dumb and largely one-sided turf war on the right. It is mostly an intra-media thing, and it produces some strange results: My colleague Mark Krikorian was scandalized that my colleague Jack Butler had the audacity to take his own side in a fight. It is very tedious, and I bring it up only because it illustrates something that conservatives need to be thinking about — which is: What is all this for?

There are really two audiences for conservative commentary and conservative journalism. One of those audiences is conservatives, and the other audience is everybody else. Which audience you are after determines a lot about your business model and your politics — and, in some cases, there’s no difference between those.

Fox News, talk radio, a lot of dopey websites and would-be social-media influencers whose main mission in life is trying to get noticed by picking a fight with Jack Butler or David French, the television startups that hope to out-Fox Fox — all of these are in the business of packaging conservatism for conservatives. There is a lot of money to be made, and easeful careers to be had, preaching to the choir. I take the Don Corleone view of this question: I don’t judge a man for how he makes his living, but it’s a dirty business, and I believe that it will destroy us in the years to come. I have a few friends who have traded in their bow ties for red caps. Some of them are true believers, and some of them have been corrupted. Some of them feel a strange compulsion to explain themselves to me: “Yeah, it was a deal with the devil — but I got a really good deal!

To quote the noted economist Katt Williams: “By all means, make your paper, boo-boo.”

A variation on this is the Tracy Flick school of activism — starting a club for the purpose of giving yourself something to be in charge of. Catholic integralism? That’s pure Tracy Flick. These are the “strategists” and “consultants” who have never had a real paying client, the “institutions” and “organizations” that are mostly social-media accounts, etc.

Conservatism-for-conservatives, telling conservatives what they want to hear, can be really good business — Sean Hannity is seriously rich — and it is based on a conception of conservatism as tribe, conservatism as self-conscious counterculture. For these people, being conservative is an identity, like being transgender or being a religious convert. (Indeed, religious converts, political converts, and transgender people all tell a variation of the same story: “I was blind, but now I see.”) That means that conservatism isn’t a disposition or a sensibility, but something that one is loyal to. Like all tribalism, it is primitive and, therefore, effectively ineradicable. You can’t argue with it.

Politically, it is a losing proposition, as attested to by President Biden, Senators Ossoff and Warnock, Senators Sinema and Kelly, etc.

The other model of conservative journalism or activism is the everyone else approach, one that is directed not at rallying one’s own partisans but at persuading people who are not already self-conscious conservatives, engaging with people as they are and with mainstream institutions. This irritates and enrages tribal conservatives, especially if you’re any good at it. I quote the New York Times fairly often, because it is one of the newspapers to which I subscribe, and I write from time to time for mainstream publications such as the Washington Post. And I hear from my fellow conservatives: “Why would you want to read the New York Times? Why would you want to write in the Washington Post?” Often, this is accompanied by some kind of feral howl about “Georgetown cocktail parties.” (I live in Texas. If memory serves, the last Georgetown cocktail party I went to was Jonah Goldberg’s birthday party a couple of years ago. Bill Kristol was there — it was practically a talk-radio conspiracy theory come to life.) The answer to the silly question, of course, is that I read the New York Times because I live in the United States of America, not in the People’s Republic of Konservistan, and if you want to effect change in the United States and in the world, it matters what other people who read the New York Times and the Washington Post think. It even matters, a little bit, what the people who write for them think.

The value of this used to be obvious: William F. Buckley (who lived and worked “a long time ago,” I am informed) criticized what he called “the Playboy philosophy,” but he also wrote for Playboy. Rush Limbaugh wrote for the New York Times. (His byline was “Rush H. Limbaugh 3d.”) Ronald Reagan didn’t change the country because conservatives supported him — he changed the country because he ran a sensible conservative administration on big-tent principles and won 49 states in his reelection campaign.

(Recount Minnesota!)

Conversely, Trump lost in 2020 and took Georgia down with him because, even though he wasn’t and never has been a conservative, he is a practitioner of conservative tribalism, a counterculturalist down to the medical quackery and conspiracy kookery.

There are three kinds of voters in the United States: committed Republicans, committed Democrats, and everybody else. Two out of three, you win — one out of three, you lose. But if you have a powerful appeal to a tiny share of the population — even if it is only 2 percent — you can make a lot of money and have a pretty big social-media footprint, which will be a big deal until people figure out that it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t do politics with 2 percent, and you can’t do much cultural reform with 2 percent, but you can do other things. And conservatives should maybe think a little about what those other things are the next time somebody tries to sell you some doggie vitamins or a five-year supply of freeze-dried apocalypse lasagna.

Words About Words

“Clinton is rightly regarded a political genius,” Charles M. Blow writes in the New York Times, “with a gift for making the complex plain—‘putting the hay down where the goats can get it,’ as we Southerners say—but he made some huge mistakes for which his party must repent, and that party is well down that road.”

The language of religious conversion is everywhere in our politics (“must repent”) but the language of goat hay is less common. I like the expression, and I will take Blow’s word for it that it is something Southerners say. But the only person I can find using the expression — Southern or otherwise — is George Wallace.

Even goats won’t eat that hay.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A limit is a defined boundary or a demarcation; a limitation is a disability. Intention and intent are pretty nearly interchangeable, with intent having a slightly stronger connotation of careful deliberation; a motive is a reason, motivation is an animating force; to be obliged is to be in someone’s debt for a favor, to be obligated is to be formally required to do something. “I had a motive to kill him but lacked the motivation. There was no limit to what I would countenance, but my aversion to risk was a limitation. I was intent on revealing nothing about my intentions. When Richard canceled the meeting, I was much obliged to him for liberating me from the obligation to attend.”

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In Closing

A thought: If you rush to social media or the comments section to inform the world how much you don’t care about Harry and Meghan, you care a great deal about Harry and Meghan.

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